Biography of a Biopsy: Do Tell All

The laboratory process for aspiration cytology is much simpler than for a biopsy, and the results are available more quickly, often within one to two days. Veterinary oncologists use cytology to “ballpark” a diagnosis. The most informative cytology results tell us the abnormality is first a tumor and then, second, may indicate which family of tumors it belongs to. Cytology does not provide as much information as a biopsy, but it helps direct the diagnostic evaluation, surgical approach or medical therapy. I often use cytology as a first line of diagnosis, and if I need more specific information about a tumor, I obtain a biopsy sample.

Biopsy: Not for Every Patient

Every medical procedure has pluses and minuses, and a biopsy is no different. My job is to weigh the risks and benefits of biopsy for each individual pet and make the best recommendation as part of an ongoing plan for diagnosis and treatment. Occasionally, biopsy is too risky.

One type of tumor where the risks of biopsy often outweigh the benefits is brain tumors. For obvious reasons, tumors deep in the brain are treated based on their MRI characteristics, without biopsy. However, tumors found on the surface of the brain can be removed surgically and the excised tissue submitted for biopsy. Another type of patient in which we would forgo a biopsy is one with a bleeding disorder due to fears the patient could lose a significant amount of blood as a result of the procedure. In these cases, we may need to use our best guess as to what tumor is causing the problem and treat accordingly. Fortunately, these situations are uncommon.

A biopsy is often the end of the diagnostic evaluation, but the beginning of the treatment phase for a pet with cancer. Once I know what tumor your pet has and how extensive it is, we can start the conversation about how best to get your dog or cat on the road to recovery. And that’s a story I always do my best to try and deliver a happy ending for.


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